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VALCOUR BAY - History

VALCOUR BAY - History

To General Schuyler. From General Arnold

Schuyler's Island, Oct. 12 1776

Dear General: Yesterday morning at eight o'clock, the enemy's fleet, consisting of one ship mounting sixteen guns, one snow mounting the same number, one schooner of fourteen guns, two of twelve, two sloops, a bomb-ketch and a large vessel (that did not come up), with fifteen or twenty flat-bottomed boats or gondolas, carrying one twelve or eighteen-pounder in their bows, appeared off Cumberland Head. We immediately prepared to receive them. The galleys and Royal Savage were ordered under way; the rest of our fleet lay at an anchor. At eleven o'clock they ran under the lee of Valcour and began the attack. The schooner, by some bad management, fell to leeward and was first attacked; one of her masts was wounded, and her rigging shot away. The captain thought prudent to run her on the point of Valcour, where all the men were saved. They boarded her, and at night set fire to her. At half-past twelve the engagement became general and very warm. Some of the enemy's ships and all her gondolas beat and rowed up within musket-shot of us. They continued a very hot fire with round and grape-shot until five o'clock, when they thought proper to retire to about six or seven hundred yards distance, and continued the fire until dark. The Congress and Washington have suffered greatly; the latter lost her first lieutenant killed, captain and master wounded. The New-York lost all her officers, except her captain. The Philadelphia was hulled in so many places that she sunk in about one hour after the engagement was over. The whole killed and wounded amounts to about sixty. The enemy landed a large number of Indians on the island and each shore, who kept an incessant fire on us, but did little damage. The enemy had, to appearance, upwards of one thousand in batteaus, prepared for boarding. We suffered much for want of seamen and gunners. I was obliged myself to point most of the guns on board the Congress, which I believe did good execution. The Congress received seven shot between wind and water, was hulled a dozen times, had her mainmast wounded in two places and her yard in one. The Washington was hulled a number of times, her mainmast shot through, and must have a new one. Both vessels are very leaky and want repairing.

On consulting with General Waterbury and Colonel Wigglesworth, it was thought prudent to return to Crown Point, every vessel's ammunition being nearly three fourths spent. At seven o'clock, Colonel Wigglesworth, in the Trumbull, got under way, the gondolas and small vessels followed, and the Congress and Washington brought up the rear. The enemy did not attempt to molest us. Most of the fleet is this minute come to anchor. Thc wind is small to the southward. The enemy's fleet is under way to leeward and beating up. As soon as our leaks are stopped, the whole fleet will make the utmost despatch to Crown Point, where I beg vou will send ammunition and your further orders for us. On the whole, I think we have had a very fortunate escape and have great reason to return our humble and hearty thanks to Almighty God for preserving and delivering so many of us from our more than savage enemies.


American Revolution: Battle of Valcour Island

The Battle of Valcour Island was fought October 11, 1776, during the American Revolution (1775-1783) and saw American forces on Lake Champlain clash with the British. Having abandoned the invasion of Canada, the Americans realized that a naval force would be needed to block the British on Lake Champlain. Organized by Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, work began on a small fleet. Completed in fall 1776, this force met a larger British squadron near Valcour Island. While the British got the better of the action, Arnold and his men were able to escape south. While a tactical defeat for the Americans, the delay caused by both sides having to build fleets prevented the British from invading from the north in 1776. This allowed the Americans to regroup and be prepared for the decisive Saratoga Campaign the following year.


Lake Champlain Islands Complex

The Lake Champlain Islands Complex encompasses approximately 1,162 acres of Adirondack Forest Preserve lands between six islands and three boat launches on the western shore of Lake Champlain. The islands are rich in history ranging from before European settlement through recent times, including the periods of exploration and settlement, the French-Indian War, the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

The Lake Champlain islands can be accessed by boat from one of the many public and private marinas or boat launch sites on either the New York or Vermont side of the lake. The six islands are located in Lake Champlain starting just east of Plattsburgh in Clinton County and run south almost to Ticonderoga in Essex County. Valcour Island and Schuyler Island are classified as Primitive while the remaining islands are classified as Wild Forest.


Bluff Point Lighthouse on Valcour Island

Valcour Island, the largest of the six islands at 968 acres, is located southeast of the City of Plattsburgh in the Town of Peru. This island and the waters around it contain some of the richest history of all the islands. Bluff Point Lighthouse is located on the island's western shore and the Seton House is located on its southwestern shore. Valcour Bay was the site of the Battle of Valcour Island - an important Revolutionary War naval battle. The island has hiking trails, designated primitive tent sites, picnic areas and beaches.

Garden Island, less than 1 acre in size, is located just south of Valcour Island in the Town of Peru. The island juts sharply out of the water with 15 to 20 foot bare limestone cliffs and has no recreational facilities.

Schuyler Island, the second largest island at 161 acres, is located 12 miles south of Garden Island in the Town of Chesterfield, approximately 1 mile from the Port Douglas Boat Launch. The Colonial Naval Fleet spent the night on Schuyler Island after escaping the British blockade under the cover of darkness during the Battle of Valcour Island.

Cole Island, less than 1 acre in size, is located in the Town of Westport, 5 miles south of the Westport Boat Launch. Cole Island is used for picnicking and other day use activities, but is too small to sustain overnight use. Tucked into a well-sheltered harbor, the island offers protection from the strong south winds, making it a popular anchorage for recreational boaters. Legend has it that Father Isaac Jogues was brought to this island by his Mohawk captors and tortured. The island does receive a considerable amount of day use from the nearby summer camp.

Sheepshead Island, less than 1 acre in size, is located 14 miles south of Cole Island, past Port Henry and Crown Point, and has no recreational facilities.

Signal Buoy Island, less than 1 acre in size, is the southernmost island located 2.5 miles south of Sheepshead Island in the Town of Ticonderoga. The small island has a Coast Guard signal buoy set in the water and no recreational facilities.

Backcountry Information for the Northeastern Adirondacks provides general information regarding backcountry and seasonal conditions specific notices regarding closures and conditions of trails, roads, bridges and other infrastructure and links to weather, state land use regulations, low impact recreation and more.

Featured Activities

Boating

General information on boating includes safety tips with links to rules and regulations and lists of DEC boat launches by county.

The islands can be accessed by boat from one of four DEC boat launches or from any of the numerous municipal and private boat launches and marinas.

Peru Dock Boat Launch has a macadam surface approach which is large enough to accommodate large car and trailer units. The ramp extends 50 feet and is outfitted with aluminum floating docks with accessibility features. The two parking areas include accessible parking and can hold a total of 50 cars and trailers. An accessible flush toilet facility is located on the site. Additionally, there is a boat pump out for boats equipped with sanitary facilities.

Port Douglas Boat Launch has a modern two-lane concrete launch ramp with aluminum floating docks with accessibility features. The parking area includes accessible parking and will hold 20 cars and trailers. An accessible portable toilet facility is located on the site.

Willsboro Bay Boat Launch has a launch apron wide enough for large boats and vehicles to turn around. The concrete ramp is a twin, two-lane launch with aluminum floating docks with accessibility features. This spacious site has parking space for 100 cars and trailers including accessible parking. There is an accessible vault toilet facility. Additionally, there is a boat pump out for boats equipped with sanitary facilities.

Westport Boat Launch has a modern two-lane concrete ramp with aluminum floating docks with accessibility features. The parking area can accommodate 30 cars with trailers and has 6 car-only lanes. Accessible parking and accessible toilet facilities are also present.


Dock near Seton House

Docks are removed from DEC boat launches each year in late October.

Valcour Island has only one usable dock at this time which is located at the Seton House near the southern end of the island. Most campsites and picnic areas can be directly accessed by small boats. Do not tie off to trees.

Small boats can access Valcour Island on the shores of Bulhead Bay, North Bay, Butterfly Bay (including the "picnic area"), and in the vicinity of campsites 21 and 22 on the eastern shore.

Valcour Island, Schuyler Island and Cole Island are popular anchorages for cabin cruisers and other large boats.

Paddling

General information on paddling includes how-to and safety tips and links to rules and regulations.

The islands can be accessed by boat from one of four DEC boat launches or from any of the numerous municipal and private boat launches and marinas. The DEC boat launches are Peru Dock, across from the Valcour Island Lighthouse Port Douglas, southwest of Schuyler Island Willsboro Bay, seven miles south of Port Douglas and Westport, 5 miles north of Cole Island.

Valcour Island has only one usable dock at this time which is located at the Seton House near the southern end of the island. Paddlers can access Valcour Island on the shores of Bulhead Bay, North Bay, Butterfly Bay (including the "picnic area"), and in the vicinity of campsites 21 and 22 on the eastern shore.

Valcour Island and Schuyler Island are part of the Lake Champlain Paddlers Trail (leaves DEC website).

Lake Champlain is part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (leaves DEC website).

Lake Champlain is used by motor boats of all sizes. Waves can be extremely big when it is windy especially if the wind is out of the north or the south. Paddlers should use caution - paddle during the morning when winds are low and stick close to shore as much as possible.

Fishing

General information on fishing includes fishing tips with links to seasons, rules and regulations. You can ensure of continued good fishing opportunities in the future by fishing responsibly. If you have never been fishing but want to try, it's easy to learn how to fish.

Anglers may use the same hand launches as paddlers, the same boat launches as boaters and the same campsites as campers to access and fish Lake Champlain.

Lake Champlain is a popular fishing location for a number of gamefish species. The populations of landlocked Atlantic salmon and lake trout continue to improve as does the size of the fish being caught thanks to the efforts to control sea lamprey populations in the lake.

The lake is also popular with bass anglers - a number of tournaments are held on the lake annually. Both largemouth and smallmouth bass can be found in bays, on shoals and along the shorelines, particularly around the islands.

Lake Champlain also contains northern pike, pickerel, carp, bullhead, sucker, and panfish such as yellow perch, black crappie, white crappie, white perch, rock bass, bluegill, pumpkinseed sunfish and smelt.

Exotic species such as bowfin, burbot (ling), sheepshead (freshwater drum), and longnose gar also are found in the lake.

Guides and charters are available for fishing in Lake Champlain and can be found through The Adirondack Coast (leaves DEC website) or Lake Champlain Region (leaves DEC website).

Special fishing regulations (leaving DEC website to official Fishing Regulations Guide vendor website) apply and ice fishing is allowed. Willsboro Bay Boat Launch is commonly used to access the ice on Willsboro Bay in the winter and the municipal boat launch in Port Henry provides access to Bulwagga Bay for ice anglers.

A reciprocal licensing agreement allows anglers with either a New York or Vermont fishing license in much of the Lake. Check to be sure which part of the lake is included or excluded from the reciprocal license agreement.

General information on Adirondack/Lake Champlain Fishing provides information on fishing in the Adirondacks and links to top fishing waters, stocking lists, public fishing access and waters open to ice fishing listed by county.

Hiking

General information on hiking includes how-to and safety tips and links to rules and regulations.


Portion of the Nomad Trail

The 12 miles of hiking trails on Valcour Island are the only designated trails on any of the islands. The trail system extends from the southern end, looping around the circumference, and includes two bisector trails that cut through the center of the island. The trails around the island provide for an excellent natural experience and offer great scenic vistas.

Valcour Island has only one usable dock at this time which is located at the Seton House near the southern end of the island. Paddlers and small boats can access the island on the shores of Bulhead Bay, North Bay, Butterfly Bay (including the "picnic area"), and in the vicinity of campsites 21 and 22 on the eastern shore.

Valcour Island Lighthouse Loop Trail is a 0.6-mile trail that circles around Bluff Point Lighthouse.

Valcour Island Perimeter Trail is a 9.2-mile trail around the perimeter of the island, mostly in sight of the water. There are three scenic overlooks from the top of the cliffs on the eastern shore of the island. The trail connects with the Valcour Island Lighthouse Loop and passes the Seton House where it can be accessed from the docks. All of the campsites and picnic areas connect to the trail either directly or via spur trails.

Royal Savage Trail extends 1.4 miles in an arc between the eastern and western sections of the Valcour Island Perimeter Trail in the northern portion of the island.

Nomad Trail extends 1.2 miles between the eastern and western sections of the Valcour Island Perimeter Trail near the center of the island.

Campsite Connector Trail extends 0.2 mile from the perimeter trails to Campsites 13 and 14 on the eastern shore of the island.

Camping

General information on backcountry camping includes how-to and safety tips and links to rules and regulations.

Valcour Island has 29 designated primitive tent sites on its shores. Campsites are available on a first come - first served basis and are marked with a yellow "Camp Here" disc and a number. A free permit must be obtained from the DEC caretaker during the summer. Most campsites contain pit privies, picnic tables and fireplaces.

Most but not all tents sites can be accessed directly from the water. Paddlers and small boats can access the island on the shores of Bulhead Bay, North Bay, Butterfly Bay (including the "picnic area"), and in the vicinity of tent sites 21 and 22 on the eastern shore and use the Valcour Island Perimeter Trail and other trails to access the tent sites.

The tent sites are some of the most sought after camping locations on the lake. During any warm sunny summer day, the campsites around Valcour Island fill quickly. Most weekdays one can find a campsite, but the most desired sites are often occupied.

Schuyler Island has three campsites on its western shore which are connected by a 0.3-mile trail. Paddlers and small boats can access the island near the campsites.

Campers who prefer more amenities may camp at the nearby Ausable Point Campground and Crown Point Campground and boat or paddle to the islands.

Picnicking

Picnicking is allowed on all of the islands.


Bluff Point Lighthouse

Butterfly Bay on the western shore of Valcour Island has a day use area with picnic tables.

The designated tent sites on Schuyler Island can be used for picnicking when they are not occupied by campers, as can other locations on the island.

Cole Island is a popular location for picnickers.

Historical Features

Bluff Point Lighthouse on Valcour Island is on both the National Register of Historic Places and New York State's Register of Historic Places. Construction of the lighthouse was completed in 1874. The lighthouse was part of a series of beacons constructed by the Federal government along Lake Champlain. It is located 95 feet above the western shore of the island and is 36 feet high. The lighthouse protected the busy channel between Valcour Island and the New York shore for 57 years before falling into disrepair.

While in service, the structure was a home for the lighthouse keeper and his family. The light keeper recorded weather conditions and fuel consumption on a daily basis. In 1929, a steel framework tower was built about 100 feet from the old lighthouse. The original lighthouse was decommissioned in 1931 and sold.

In 1986, New York State began negotiating with the lighthouse's owner to purchase the lighthouse and the land that it sat upon. The structure was sound, but had fallen into disrepair due in part to vandalism. Worried that the State would destroy the structure or let it continue to decline, the owner included a clause in the sale contract that gave the Clinton County Historical Association (leaves DEC website) a conservation easement for the lighthouse.

In 1987, the Clinton County Historical Association established an endowment for the restoration and maintenance of the lighthouse. The repairs involved a mixture of paid labor and volunteer work, while several local businesses donated services or goods to the project. In November of 2004, the United States Coast Guard, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and Clinton County Historical Association completed the relighting of the historic Bluff Point Lighthouse, returning the lighthouse to its original duties as a true aid to navigation. While the lighthouse is currently closed for repairs, when the work is completed the Clinton County Historical Association will once again provide volunteers to staff the lighthouse on weekends. The volunteers will provide tours and information about the lighthouse to visitors.

Seton House is a historic camp located on the southwest side of the island, constructed in 1929 and formerly owned by the Seton family. The stone house displays the way the island was historically used and is eligible for listing on the State and National Historic registers.

The dock that once provided access to the home now provides access for DEC to perform island maintenance, search and rescue operations, fire-fighting activities, and other functions.

The Seton House is not currently open to the public.

Wildlife Viewing

White-tailed deer and many small mammals are found on Valcour Island and Schuyler Island.

Valcour Island is a designated Bird Conservation Area. Bald eagles have been observed in the vicinity of Valcour and Schuyler Islands. The cliffs on the south end of Valcour Island are a historic peregrine falcon eyrie, although there has been no nesting there for several decades.

The privately-owned Four Brothers Islands contain the largest waterbird breeding colony in northeastern New York. The islands are located east of Willsboro Point. The public is prohibited from trespassing on the islands.

General information on animals includes links to information about birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects that inhabit or migrate through the state.

The Adirondacks contain large tracts of wildlife habitat with some boreal, bog, alpine and other unique habitats. Many species of birds and mammals are unique to the Adirondacks or are mainly found here. More than 50 species of mammals and hundreds of species of birds inhabit or pass through the Adirondacks at one time of the year or another so it is not unlikely to catch site of wildlife during your trip.

More information on Adirondack Flora and Fauna (Leaves DEC Website) from the SUNY ESF Adirondack Ecological Center.

You can protect wildlife and wildlife habitat when viewing them.

Wildlife Found in the Adirondacks

Hunting and Trapping

General Information on hunting and general information on trapping includes how-to and safety tips with links to seasons, rules & regulations.

Hunting and trapping are allowed on all of the islands. Hunters and trappers may use the parking areas and trails used by hikers the hand launches used by paddlers and the boat launches used by boaters to access the lands and waters.

Valcour Island and Schuyler Island both have resident white-tailed deer populations. Deer hunting is encouraged on the islands to protect native vegetation from over browsing.

Waterfowl hunting is popular on and around the islands.

Accessible Recreation

General information on accessible recreation includes links to other locations with accessible recreation opportunities and information on permits for motorized access.

Peru Dock Boat Launch has aluminum floating docks with accessibility features, accessible parking spaces and an accessible flush toilet facility.

Port Douglas Boat Launch has aluminum floating docks with accessibility features, accessible parking spaces and an accessible portable toilet facility.

Willsboro Bay Boat Launch has aluminum floating docks with accessibility features, accessible parking space, and an accessible vault toilet facility.

Westport Boat Launch has accessible parking spaces, floating metal docks and accessible restrooms.

Docks are removed from DEC boat launches each year in late October.

Directions

All coordinates provided are in decimal degrees using NAD83/WGS84 datum.

Boat Launches

  • Peru Dock Boat Launch is located on State Route 9. (44.61870°N, 73.4457°W) Google Maps (leaves DEC website)
  • Port Douglas Boat Launch is located at the end of the Port Douglas Road (County Route 16). (44.4847°N, 73.4172°W) Google Maps (leaves DEC website)
  • Willsboro Bay Boat Launch is located off the Willsboro Point Road (County Route 27). (44.4008°N, 73.3902°W) Google Maps (leaves DEC website)
  • Westport Boat Launch is located on State Route 22. (44.1888°N, 73.4342°W) Google Maps (leaves DEC website)
  • Seton House Dock is located on the southern end of the western shore of Valcour Island. (44.6092°N, 73.4230°W) Google Maps (leaves DEC website)

Rules, Regulations and Outdoor Safety

Practice Leave No Trace principles (leaves DEC website) when recreating in the Adirondacks to enjoy the outdoors responsibly, minimize impact on the natural resources and avoid conflicts other backcountry users.

All users of the Lake Champlain Islands must follow all State Land Use Regulations and should follow all Outdoor Safety Practices for the safety of the user and protection of the resource.

Do not tie off boats on shoreline trees.

Planning and Management

DEC manages these lands in accordance with the 2017 Lake Champlain Islands Complex Unit Management Plan (UMP) (PDF). In addition to management objectives, the UMP contains detailed information on natural features, recreational infrastructure, geology, natural and human history, habitats, wildlife, fisheries and much more.

Nearby State Lands, Facilities, Amenities & Other Information

State Lands and Facilities

Gas can be obtained in the nearby communities of Peru, Keeseville, Willsboro, Westport, Port Henry and Crown Point.

Food and supplies can be obtained in the nearby communities of Peru, Keeseville, Willsboro, Westport, Port Henry and Crown Point.

Dining is available in the nearby communities of Peru, Keeseville, Willsboro, Essex, Westport, Port Henry and Crown Point.

Lodging is available in the nearby communities of Keeseville, Willsboro, Essex, Westport and Port Henry.

Adirondack Regional Tourism Council (leaves DEC website), Adirondack Coast Regional Tourism (leaves DEC website), and Lake Champlain Region (leaves DEC website) can provide information about other recreation, attractions, and amenities in this area.

Numerous guide books and maps are available with information on the lands, waters, trails and other recreational facilities in this area. These can be purchased at most outdoor equipment retailers, bookstores, and on-line booksellers.

Additional information, outdoor equipment, trip suggestions and guided or self-guided tours may be obtained from outdoor guide and outfitting businesses. Check area chambers of commerce, telephone directories or search the internet for listings.

Consider hiring an outdoor guide if you have little experience or woodland skills. See the NYS Outdoor Guides Association (leaves DEC Website) for information on outdoor guides.


Related Articles

The feds probably made the move in response to an April 23, 1888, filing by the San Pedro Harbor, Dock and Land company, which was based in San Francisco and associated with the Southern Pacific railroad. That transaction deeded a 22-acre strip of land cutting through the military reservation to Southern Pacific, owned by railroad baron Collis P. Huntington, for the princely sum of $1.

The San Francisco firm, a shell company, of course had no claim to the land. But it didn’t stop Huntington from using it essentially to deed the land, which he didn’t own, to himself. Once he had “acquired” his pathway to build the railroad through the land, he began looking to bring the remaining 40 acres of land under his control.

First, he bought off a squatter with a farm on the land with $500. The squatter, known only to history as “Woodward,” left, never to return. Then, San Pedro pioneer James H. Dodson came in, cleared the land, apparently without Southern Pacific’s permission, and made a profit raising barley there for the next three years.

Dodson lasted until 1891, when Southern Pacific proceeded to build a fence around the land, subsequently ordering Dodson to clear out immediately.

“I thought I might as well go,” Dodson told the Los Angeles Herald in 1895. “I knew they had no more title to the land than I had, but they were all-powerful and I had no money to waste in trying to fight them.”

The railroad then built its line through the reservation and leased the rest of the land out to sheep ranchers, among other tenants.

By 1895, Huntington’s scheme to take control of the government land had become known to the public thanks to a series of scathing exposes in the Los Angeles Herald and the Los Angeles Times. (The Herald stories refer to the railroad magnate as “Squatter Huntington” for his brazen land grab.)

The controversy over Southern Pacific’s actions lasted for more than a decade. Finally, the city of Los Angeles sued the railroad over the land rights in 1910. The office of California state attorney general Ulysses S. Webb stepped in to try the case against the railroad on behalf of the city. In June 1912, a judge ruled in the city’s favor, declaring that Southern Pacific had no legal claim to the land.

But it would take another five years for Southern Pacific to give up all claims to the right-of-way through the military reservation, which it finally did in an agreement signed in July 1917.

By then, it was a moot point, as the new military base already had opened.

Early undated view of the Middle Reservation, Fort MacArthur. (Fort MacArthur Museum)

The original military reserve set aside by Mexico in 1846 is reflected in this Los Angeles city map from 1856. (San Pedro Bay at right.) (Credit: City of Los Angeles, via Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields website)

The Los Angeles Herald has overlaid the facetious description “Railroad Reservation” over the map of the San Pedro military reservation in this map from its edition of Jan. 28, 1895. Note the Southern Pacific railroad tracks indicated at right. (Credit: Los Angeles Herald archives)

The Los Angeles Herald has overlaid the facetious description “Railroad Reservation” over the map of the San Pedro military reservation in this map from its edition of Jan. 28, 1895. Note the Southern Pacific railroad tracks indicated at right. (Credit: Los Angeles Herald archives)

As early as 1906, the federal government had issued a report estimating the cost of protecting the new Port of Los Angeles at $2 million. Money from that budget was used to purchase additional land above Point Fermin from William Kerchoff and George Peck for $249,000 in 1910.

Two years earlier, in 1908, the War Department had called for the building of a fort on the land to protect the strategic coastal area, in light of rising international tensions that seemed to be leading to war.

But it took the outbreak of World War I, in the summer of 1914, to put the development of Fort MacArthur on a fast track, even though the U.S. wouldn’t enter the war until three years later. By early October 1914, construction of the fort officially began.

On Oct. 31, 1914, the U.S. Army officially declared the establishment of the coastal artillery post, though it was still only in the beginning phase of construction at that point.

We’ll pick up the story there next week in Part 2.

Sources: Daily Breeze files “Fort MacArthur,” Fort Wiki website “Fort MacArthur History,” by California Center for Military History, California Military Department, Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields website Los Angeles Herald files Los Angeles Times files San Pedro News Pilot files Wikipedia.


Which NYS Battle Was Most Significant For The State?

Over at the New York History Blog Facebook Page we recently asked the following question:

Which battle in New York State’s history had the most significant impact on the state?

The answers were surprisingly varied and included answers from the 1643-45 Kieft’s War (the war between New Netherland settlers and the Native inhabitants of Hudson River Valley also known as the Wappinger War) to the Anti-Rent War of 1839–1845.

We’ve reviewed the suggestions, and came up with a short list of five battles* which stand out as the most important to us (with short descriptions from Wikipedia) – what do you think? [Read more…] about Which NYS Battle Was Most Significant For The State?


Buying Time: The Battle of Valcour Island

On July 7, 1776, Major General Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Department, convened a council of war at Crown Point, New York, to assess the military situation following the American retreat from Canada. In attendance were Major General Horatio Gates, newly appointed commander of the nonexistent American army in Canada, Major General John Sullivan, and a recently promoted brigadier general, Benedict Arnold. The situation looked grim. The council decided to abandon the tenuous position at Crown Point and withdraw American forces to a more defensible position at Fort Ticonderoga. This decision, however, left only a modest flotilla of small wooden ships on Lake Champlain, under the command of Commodore Jacobus Wynkoop of New York, as the last line of defense between the approaching British and Ticonderoga. Therefore, it was decided to augment the fleet by constructing more vessels in an attempt to thwart the expected British invasion. The small American fleet constructed on Lake Champlain would eventually meet the British in the Battle of Valcour Island, a battle that, in all likelihood, saved the American cause.

Benedict Arnold, who had proven his military skills during the American expedition into Canada, was given the assignment of overseeing construction of the American fleet being built at Skenesborough, New York. Although serving in the Continental Army, Arnold had significant experience in ships and shipbuilding. Before the war, he had made his living shipping goods to the Caribbean from New England and had amassed considerable wealth as a result. Arnold’s arrival at Skenesborough gave the American shipbuilding effort the leadership and experience it needed to make it an effective fighting force. Under the leadership of Wynkoop, the strength of the American fleet had actually deteriorated. As a result, Arnold assumed overall command of the fleet on August 7, 1776.

Arnold was hampered by serious problems from the outset. He had shortages of almost every type imaginable: iron for nails, food, guns, experienced ship builders, and most important, men with seafaring experience to man the ships. General Washington, defending New York City, could not spare any seamen to Arnold. To make matters worse, Arnold was also facing a court martial for being accused of looting Montreal during the retreat from Canada. The charges were eventually dropped, but precious time had been wasted in the process. Eventually, experienced shipbuilders from New England, New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia trickled in to Skenesborough, and construction of the fleet began in earnest. There was still a shortage of men to serve as crews for his ships. Lacking volunteers, Arnold was forced to draft early 300 men, primarily from two New Hampshire regiments. Yet, despite the critical manpower shortage, Arnold refused to request marines to accompany his flotilla. During his expedition into Canada, a number of marines accompanied the American forces, and Arnold, for some undetermined reason, found them to be “the refuse of every regiment.” By October 1776, the American fleet was comprised of sixteen ships. These included the schooners Royal Savage, equipped with four six-pound guns and eight four-pounders the Revenge and Liberty with four four-pounders and four two-pounders each and the sloop Enterprise, armed with twelve four-pounders. The Liberty was eventually stripped of its armament and transformed into a hospital and courier ship for the fleet. In addition to these ships, the American fleet consisted of four row galleys (the Lee, Trumbull, Washington, and Arnold’s flagship Congress), each armed with one eighteen-pounder, one twelve-pounder, two nine-pounders and six six-pounders. The smallest boats in Arnold’s fleet were eight gondolas. Small, low in the water to provide a minimal target, and easy to maneuver in the confined waters of Lake Champlain, the gondolas were powered by sail and long oars known as sweeps. For their size, they were relatively heavily armed with one twelve-pound gun in the bow, a pair of nine-pounders amidships, and a number of swivel guns firing grapeshot to rake the enemy’s masts and rigging and to discourage boarding. The gondolas in Arnold’s flotilla were the Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven, Providence, New York, Connecticut, Spitfire, and Jersey. In spite of time constraints and a host of other problems, Arnold had managed to assemble a significant force of boats to meet the challenge at hand.

The British forces in Canada, under the command of General Sir Guy Carleton, immediately recognized the importance of controlling Lake Champlain in order to carry out the planned British two-pronged invasion that called for forces advancing south from Canada to link-up with General William Howe’s forces in the Hudson Valley. If this could be achieved, New York and New England would be effectively severed from one another and the rebellion all but finished. Lake Champlain was vital to the British forces moving south, as upstate New York had few roads or trails, and troops had to be transported southward by boat. However, the British received word that the Americans on Lake Champlain were constructing a fleet to challenge British movements. As a result, the British invasion was delayed until a fleet of their own could be assembled and British naval control firmly established on the lake.

Unlike the Americans, the British faced few shortages or other problems in building their fleet. They had ample numbers of guns, supplies and experienced men for their ships. Twelve prefabricated gunboats arrived from England and were reassembled at St. Jean on the Richelieu River, which flowed into Lake Champlain. Three ships, the schooners Maria and Carelton, and the gondola Loyal Convert, were stripped down and dragged overland from the St. Lawrence River to St. Jean, while a fourth, the 180-ton Inflexible, by far the largest ship in either fleet and armed with eighteen twelve-pounders, was knocked down and reassembled at St. Jean. In addition to these ships, the British constructed a large radeau, a heavily armed, flat-bottomed sailing scow generally used for bombarding shore installations. Named the Thunderer, she was armed with six twenty-four-pounders, six twelve-pounders, and two howitzers, making her the most heavily armed ship on the lake and easily outgunning anything in the American fleet. All told, the British fleet, under the naval command of Lt. Thomas Pringle, consisted of one ship, two schooners, one gondola, one radeau, twenty gunboats, each armed with a brass field piece and two howitzers, four long boats equipped with carriage guns, and twenty-four unarmed long boats carrying provisions and other equipment. In addition to outnumbering the Americans in sheer numbers of ships, the British fleet also possessed an overwhelming superiority in guns. Arnold’s fleet could throw about 600 pounds of shot compared to the British flotilla’s 1,100 pounds. As a result, the British felt quite confident as they sortied out of St. Jean on October 4.

Arnold clearly understood the scope of British naval superiority. Through a network of spies, deserters, and prisoners, he had gained a fairly clear picture of British intentions and general time frame of when they would set sail. Knowing he could not attack, he decided to let the British attack him. Arnold deployed his fleet in the narrow, rocky channel between Valcour Island and the western shore of Lake Champlain. The narrowness of the channel would force the British to attack singly and would not allow them to bring as many guns to bear as on the open water. The only disadvantage was that if anything should go wrong, the Americans would not have an easy means of escape. Once in position, all that Arnold and his men could do was wait.

Sailing southward down Lake Champlain on the morning of October 11, 1776, the British skirted the eastern shore of Valcour Island, unaware that the American fleet lay on the other side. Shortly before 11:00 a.m., British lookouts spotted the Royal Savage, and turned to attack. The strong northerly wind, however, made it difficult for the British to turn toward the Americans. As a result, Inflexible remained out of action for most of the battle.

The battle began inauspiciously for the Americans. Royal Savage immediately ran aground and was abandoned after being bombarded mercilessly. She was later captured and burned by the British. Yet, while outgunned, the Americans exacted a heavy price of the enemy. The British schooner Carleton took a savage beating, with most of her crew killed or wounded. She was nearly abandoned until towed to safety. A British gunboat was destroyed when a shot touched off its powder magazine, and two others were also sunk.

Eventually, however, British guns began to find the range and pounded Arnold’s fleet. Congress and Jersey suffered heavy damage, and Philadelphia was holed by several shots, at least one of which pierced her below the waterline and left her a sinking wreck. To make matters worse, Inflexible arrived by the late afternoon, and in the waning daylight hours, bombarded the Americans with its heavy guns. As darkness fell, the British withdrew into a line south of the Americans, confident that victory would be theirs with the destruction of the American fleet at daylight. Arnold, however, had other plans. Gathering his officers together, he decided to make a run south through the British fleet. Aided by a thick fog that had settled over the lake during the evening hours and Pringle’s failure to post adequate sentries, Arnold arranged his ships in single file, with Trumbull at the head of the column, and ordered his men to wrap their oars in cloth to muffle the sound. Guided by small hooded lanterns at the stern of each ship, Arnold’s surviving ships rowed quietly past the British, at times passing close enough to hear voices from the enemy vessels. Once clear, Arnold’s men rowed furiously to widen the distance.

As dawn broke on the morning of October 12, the British were shocked to discover that Arnold and the American fleet had escaped. After a desperate search around Valcour Island, Pringle turned his fleet south in pursuit of the rebel flotilla, but a strong wind from the south prevented them from gaining any ground on the Americans. That same wind, however, also prevented Arnold from increasing the gap between his ships and the enemy. At Schuyler Island, Arnold allowed his exhausted men to rest. Three gondolas, Providence, New York, and Jersey, were found to be too heavily damaged to be of further use. After they were stripped of their guns and any other useful equipment, they were scuttled.

On October 13, the wind changed direction, blowing from the north. Arnold’s luck had run out. The British fleet quickly caught up with the Americans near Split Rock. In a possible attempt to buy time and allow the smaller vessels time to escape, Arnold ordered Congress and Washington to hold their positions against the British onslaught. Washington was quickly overwhelmed and struck her colors. Arnold’s flagship, Congress, took a fearful pounding, and the rest of the fleet received more damage. Arnold had but one option. He ordered his remaining ships into Buttonmould Bay, a shallow and rocky body of water where the British deep-draft ships could not follow, and ran them aground. He then ordered his men to strip the ships of anything of value, and the vessels were set ablaze with their rattlesnake “Don’t Tread on Me” banners still flying high. Arnold and the surviving men of the fleet marched to Crown Point, where they burned the remaining buildings and stores. They then marched to Fort Ticonderoga, carrying the wounded in slings made from the tattered sails of the American fleet.

Carleton arrived at the remains of Crown Point on October 20. Snow was already falling as the upstate New York winter quickly approached. Carleton was shaken by the unexpectedly fierce resistance offered by the Americans under Arnold. With the weather conditions quickly deteriorating, Carleton had no other choice but to retreat back into Canada to his winter quarters, effectively ending the British threat from the north until at least the spring of 1777. The Battle of Valcour Island is significant for several important reasons. Benedict Arnold, a skilled soldier whose reputation would forever be sullied by his later actions, constructed the first American naval fleet. While Valcour Island resulted in a tactical victory for the British, in the long run, the battle proved to be a strategic victory for the American quest for independence. For the cost of 80 men dead, 120 captured, and the destruction of his fleet, Arnold had accomplished the objective of disrupting the British invasion from Canada. By causing the British to postpone their plans until the spring, Arnold had bought the rebels time to gather strength and resources that would be utilized at the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point in the War of Independence. The significance of what Arnold accomplished at Valcour Island cannot be denied. One hundred years later, the great naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan observed that “the little American navy was wiped out, but never had any force, big or small, lived to better purpose.”

For more information on the Battle of Valcour Island and Benedict Arnold, read:

William M. Fowler, Jr., Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy during the Revolution

Willard Sterne Randall, Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor

E.B. Potter, The Naval Academy Illustrated History of the United States Navy

Stephen Howarth, To Shining Sea

Claire Brandt, The Man In the Mirror

Robert Leckie, George Washington’s War

Philip K. Lundeberg, The Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain in 1776



VALCOUR BAY - History

USS Valcour (AVP-55) History

A BIT OF HISTORY : ". THE UNITED STATES NAVY IN "DESERT SHIELD" I "DESERT STORM". " http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/histories/db/navy/usnavy_017.html [17NOV2003]

Navy presence was embodied in the "little white fleet" of USS Duxbury Bay (AVP-38), USS GREENWICH BAY (AVP 41) and USS VALCOUR (AVP 55) - former seaplane tenders - which rotated duties as flagship for Commander- Middle East Force and his staff. All three ships were painted white to counter the region's extreme heat. The flagship served as the primary protocol platform of the United States throughout the region. Accompanied by one or two other rotationally deployed warships, the Middle East Force (MIDEASTFOR) provided the initial U.S. military response to any crisis in the region, as well as humanitarian and emergency assistance.

For the next 20 years, three or four ships at a time were assigned to MIDEASTFOR - generally a command ship and two or three small combatants such as destroyers or frigates. Because temperatures in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Indian Ocean reached as high as 130 degrees, the non-air-conditioned ships rotated every few months - a practice still followed today, with the exception of the single forward-deployed command ship.

A BIT OF HISTORY : ". 1962 - USS Valcour (AVP-55) provides medical care to a merchant seaman from tanker SS Manhattan in the Persian Gulf. " http://www.history.navy.mil/wars/datesmay.htm [17NOV2003]

A BIT OF HISTORY : ". Tender Rejoins The Fleet - Page 12 - Naval Aviation News - December 1951. " WebSite: http://www.history.navy.mil/nan/backissues/1950s/1951/dec51.pdf [25JUL2004]

Circa Unknown
Can you identify the Month and or Year?

A BIT OF HISTORY : ". USS Valcour (AVP-55, later AGF-1), 1946-1977. " http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-v/avp55.htm [17NOV2003]

USS Valcour, a 1,766-ton Barnegat class small seaplane tender, was built at Houghton, Washington, and was commissioned in July 1946. After shakedown training at San Diego, she proceeded to the East Coast in September 1946 for duty with the Atlantic Fleet. She then operated out of Norfolk, Va. Quonset Point, R.I. Cristobal, Canal Zone and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba tending seaplanes through mid-1949.

Designated flagship for Commander, Middle East Force, Valcour departed Norfolk in August 1949 for the first of sixteen deployments to the Middle East. She returned to Norfolk in March 1950 and conducted a second tour as Middle East Force flagship between September 1950 and March 1951. In May 1951, while departing Norfolk for independent ship exercises, she suffered a steering casualty and veered across the bow of the collier Thomas Tracey. The ensuing collision ruptured an aviation gasoline fuel tank and started a raging fire that took the lives of 36 men. After a major firefighting and salvage operation, she was brought back into port the following day. Valcour then underwent an extensive overhaul, during which air conditioning was installed and her 5"/38 gun was removed to compensate for the added weight.

Between 1952 and 1965 Valcour deployed every year to the Middle East as one of a trio of ships that served alternately as flagship for Commander Middle East Force. Through 1961 Valcour followed a highly predictable schedule, departing Norfolk in January, relieving USS Duxbury Bay (AVP-38) upon arrival on station, being relieved by USS Greenwich Bay (AVP-41), and returning to Norfolk in August. Highlights of this service included the boarding, salvage, and return to its crew of the burning and abandoned Italian tanker Argea Prima in May 1955 and a visit to the Seychelles Islands in 1960. She was the first U. S. Navy ship to call there in 48 years. In around 1960 Valcour received some conspicuous equipment upgrades, including a tripod mast with a newer air search radar and a tall communications antenna which, with its deckhouse, replaced the quadruple 40mm gun mount on her fantail. She completed her fifteenth Middle East cruise in March 1965.

In a 1965 force realignment, Valcour's two running mates were ordered decommissioned and Valcour was selected to be the sole Middle East flagship. As such, she was reclassified AGF-1 in December 1965 and departed the United States for her new home port of Bahrain in April 1966. Though designated the permanent Middle East Force flagship in 1971, in January 1972 she was selected for inactivation. After relief as flagship by La Salle (AGF-3), in November 1972 she arrived in Norfolk following transits of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Valcour was decommissioned in January 1973. In March her stripped hulk was towed to Solomons Island, Md., where it was used by the Naval Ordnance Laboratory for electromagnetic pulse experiments. She was sold for scrap in June 1977.

AVP-55
Displacement 1,776
Length 310'9'
Beam 41'2"
Draw 11'11"
Speed 18.5 k
Complement 367
Armament 1 5", 8 40mm, 8 20mm, 2 rkt
Class Barnegat

Valcour (AVP-55) was laid down on 21 December 1942 at Houghton, Wash., by the Lake Washington Shipyard, launched on 5 June 1943, and sponsored by Mrs. H. C. Davis, the wife of Capt. H. C. Davis, the intelligence officer for the 13th Naval District. Valco ur was taken to the Puget Sound Navy Yard for completion, but the heavy load of war-damage repairs conducted by that yard meant that her construction assumed a lower priority than the repair of combatant vessels. As a result, Valcour was not completed unt il well after World War II ended. She was commissioned at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (the former Puget Sound Navy Yard) on 5 July 1946, Comdr. Barnet T. Talbott in command.

Ordered to the Atlantic Fleet upon completion of her shakedown (conducted between 9 August and 9 September off San Diego) Valcour transited the Panama Canal between 17 and 21 September and reached the New York Naval Shipyard on 26 September for postshake down availability. Valcour subsequently operated out of Norfolk, Va. Quonset Point, R.I. Cristobal, Canal Zone and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba tending seaplanes of the Fleet Air Wings, Atlantic, through mid-1949.

Having received orders designating her as flagship for the Commander, Middle Eastern Force (ComMidEastFor), Valcour departed Norfolk on 29 August 1949 steamed across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean stopped at Gilbraltar and at Golfe Juan France tra nsited the Suez Canal and arrived at Aden, a British protectorate, on 24 September. Over the months that ensued, Valcour touched at ports on the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf (Bahrein, Kuwait Ras Al Mishab, Basra Ras Tanura, Muscat Bombay India Colomb o, Ceylon, and Karachi, Pakistan). She returned to Norfolk on 6 March 1950 (via Aden Suez, Pireaus, Greece Sfax, Tunisia, and Gibraltar). Late in the summer (after a period of leave, upkeep, and training) the seaplane tender returned to the Middle East f or her second tour as ComMidEastFor flagship which lasted from 5 September 1950 to 15 March 1951.

On the morning of 14 May 1951, two months after she returned to Norfolk, Valcour headed out to sea for independent ship exercises. While passing the collier SS Thomas Tracy off Cape Henry, Va., she suffered a steering casualty and power failure. As Valco ur veered sharply across the path of the oncoming collier, she sounded warning signals. Thomas Tracy attempted to make an emergency turn to starboard but her bow soon plowed into the seaplane tender's starboard side, rupturing an aviation gas fuel tank.

An intense fire soon broke out and, fed by the hightest aviation gas, spread rapidly. To make matters worse, water began flooding into the ship's ruptured hull. Although fire and rescue parties on board went to work immediately, the gasoline-fed inferno forced many of the tender's crew to leap overboard into the swirling currents of Hampton Roads to escape the flames that soon enveloped Valcour's starboard side. The situation at that point looked so severe that Capt. Eugene Tatom, the tender's commanding officer, gave the order to abandon ship.

Thomas Tracy, meanwhile, fared better. Fires in that ship were largely confined to the forward hold and she suffered no injuries to her crew she managed to return to Newport News with her cargo (10,000 tons of coal) intact. Valcour, on the other hand, b ecame the object of exhaustive salvage operations. Rescue ships including the submarine rescue ship Sunbird (ASR-15) and the Coast Guard tug Cherokee (WAT-165) sped to the scene of the tragedy. Fire and rescue parties (in some cases forced to utilize gas masks) succeeded in bringing the blaze under control but not before 11 men had died, and 16 more had been injured. Another 25 were listed as "missing."

Towed back to Norfolk (reaching port at 0200 on the 15th) Valcour underwent an extensive overhaul over the ensuing months. During those repairs, improvements were made in shipboard habitability (airconditioning was installed) and the removal of her singl e-mount 5-inch gun forward gave the ship a silhouette unique for ships in her class. The reconstruction task was finally completed on 4 December 1951

Valcour rotated yearly between the United States and the Middle East over the next 15 years, conducting yearly deployments as one of the trio of ships in her class that served alternately as flagship for Com MidEastFor. There were several highlights to t he ship's lengthy Middle East deployments. In July of 1953, during the ship's fourth cruise, Valcour aided a damaged cargo vessel in the Indian Ocean and then escorted her through a violent typhoon to Bombay, India. In May 1955, men from Valcour boarded t he blazing and abandoned Italian tanker Argea Prima at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, even though the ship at the time was laden with a cargo of 72,000 barrels of crude oil and proceeded to control the fires. Once the seaplane tender's fire and rescue party had performed their salvage operation, Argea Prima's crew reboarded the ship and she continued her voyage. Later, Valcour received a plaque from the owners of the tanker in appreciation of the assistance rendered to their ship.

Valcour performed her duties so efficiently that the Chief of Naval Operations congratulated ComMidEastFor for her outstanding contribution to good foreign relations and for her enhancement of the prestige of the United States. The ship was also adjudged the outstanding seaplane tender in the Atlantic Fleet in 1957 and was awarded the Battle Readiness and Excellence Plaque and the Navy "E" in recognition of the accomplishment. During Valcour's 1960 cruise, she became the first American ship in 48 years t o visit the Seychelles Islands, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. In 1963, Valcour earned her second Navy "E".

In between her deployments to the Middle East Valcour conducted local operations out of Little Creek, Va. Guantanamo Bay and Kingston, Jamaica. In 1965, the ship qualified as a "blue nose" by crossing the Arctic Circle during operations in the Norwegia n Sea.

She completed her 15th cruise on 13 March 1965 and soon thereafter was selected to continue those duties on a permanent basis. She was reclassified as a miscellaneous command flagship, AGF-1, on 15 December 1965 and departed the United States for the Mid dle East on 18 April 1966 for her 16th MidEastFor cruise.

Valcour's mission was that of command post, living facility, and communications center for ComMidEastFor and his staff of 15 officers. Demonstrating American interest and good will in that area of the globe, Valcour distributed textbooks, medicine, cloth ing, and domestic machinery (such as sewing machines, etc.) to the needy, under the auspices of Project "Handclasp." Men from Valcour helped to promote good relations in the countries visited by assisting in the construction of orphanages and schools by participating in public functions and by entertaining dignitaries military representatives, and civilians. In addition while watching merchant shipping lanes, Valcour stood ready to rescue stricken ships and to evacuate Americans during internal crises.

Homeported at Bahrain (an independent sheikdom in the Persian Gulf) since 1965, Valcour became the permanent flagship for ComMidEastFor in 1971. Relieved as flagship by La Salle (LPD-3) in the spring of 1972, Valcour returned to Norfolk, Va., via Colombo Singapore Naval Seaplane Base Brisbane, Australia Wellington, N.Z. Tahiti, Panama, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. After four days at the last-named port, she arrived at Norfolk on 11 November, completing the 18,132-mile voyage from the Middle East.

After being stripped of all usable gear over the ensuing months, Valcour was decommissioned on 15 January 1973 and shifted to the Inactive Ship Facility at Portsmouth, Va., so that she could be prepared for service as a test-bed for electromagnetic tests held under the auspices of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL), White Oak, Md. Her name was struck from the Navy list simultaneously with her decommissioning. Towed from Norfolk to Solomons Island, Md. branch of NOL the following March, she soon thereaft er began her service as a test ship for the EMPRESS (Electromagnetic Pulse Radiation Environment Simulation for Ships) facility. The erstwhile seaplane tender and command ship was sold by the Navy in May 1977.


Revolutionary War Gunboat Spitfire

In 1997, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s Lake Survey team discovered Benedict Arnold’s 1776 gondola, intact and upright, on the bottom of Lake Champlain. Spitfire was the last unaccounted-for vessel of the Battle of Valcour Bay.

Spitfire is the sister ship to Benedict Arnold’s seven other 54′ gunboats constructed in 1776 in Skenesborough (now Whitehall), NY. These vessels were built as the Americans prepared for the British advance from Canada in 1776. British and American forces met at the Battle of Valcour Bay, October 11, 1776. Spitfire was sunk by the British and remains on the bottom of the lake, almost 250 years later.

This shipwreck is in pristine condition, with the mast still standing, and the bow gun still in place. The remarkable condition is due to the lake’s cold dark fresh waters. And the depth makes her inaccessible by recreational divers.

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum has constructed a replica of one of Spitfire’s sister ships, Philadelphia. The Philadelphia II is on display at the Museum.

Notice: The Spitfire site is protected by the Sunken Military Craft Act which prohibits any disturbance or impacts to the vessel or its contents and associated debris field. Violations can result in fines of up to $100,000 per day, liability for damages, and confiscation of vessels.

Painting of the Spitfire by Ernie Haas. Reprinted with permission.

Gunboat Identified

When the gunboat was located in 1997, the Museum termed it the “missing gunboat” because the historic sources were unclear as to which of the eight American gunboats it was. At the time, historians, including Museum Director Emeritus Art Cohn, Peter Barranco, J. Robert Maguire, and George Quintal worked together to reexamine all known sources while initiating a search for new information. The team concluded that the gunboats New Haven, Providence, and Boston all made it to Arnold’s Bay and were destroyed by Arnold to prevent their falling into British hands. The team was left to conclude that the “missing” gunboat was, by process of elimination, either Connecticut or Spitfire.

Townsend document and Drawing of Spitfire, compiled from ROV footage and verification dives.

In 1999, a new document surfaced which confirmed all the previous research and put a name on the “Missing” gunboat. The manuscript, now known as the “Townsend Document” was provided by Mr. John Townsend, a historical book dealer from Connecticut. The extraordinary document is entitled “A Return of the fleet belonging to the United States of America on Lake Champlain under the Command of Brigadier General Arnold…” dated at Ticonderoga October 22, 1776.

Mr. Townsend believed the document was acquired by his grandmother. The manuscript lists each vessel by name and each vessel’s commander and ordnance. The final column on the document is titled “The fate of the Fleet.” This column details the disposition of each of the seventeen vessels in the American naval force on Lake Champlain and concludes that the vessel Lake Champlain Maritime Museum located in 1997 is the Gunboat Spitfire.

Ongoing Research Site

Spitfire presents a tremendous opportunity for research, documentation, and public engagement around the history of the Revolutionary War on Lake Champlain and the founding of the nation. As the United States heads toward the 250 th anniversary in 2026, preserving and interpreting Spitfire will be a keystone moment to tell new stories about the people, the place, and the complex stories of the beginnings of the United States.

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum is working in partnership with national, state, and local partners to develop a long-term research plan for this significant historic vessel location in Lake Champlain.

Spitfire is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been deemed Nationally Significant due to its role in the American Revolution. We ask the community to please respect the shipwreck and the research and management process. Please do not attempt to locate or interfere with this extremely sensitive archaeological site.

Sabick, C., A. Lessman, and S. McLaughlin, Lake Champlain Underwater Cultural Resources Survey, Volume II: 1997 Results and Volume III: 1998 Results. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 2000.


Then Again: Benedict Arnold’s strategic retreat from the Battle of Valcour Island

Vermont artist Ernie Haas depicted an incident from the Battle of Valcour Island in his painting “Cannon Exploding Aboard Gunboat New York, October 17, 1776.” Courtesy of Ernie Haas and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”

The men had little idea what to expect. Most of them were new to the sea, having been drawn only recently from the ranks of civilians and soldiers. And their commanders had kept them largely in the dark about what they would be facing – a much larger, better-trained and better-armed squadron, which just happened to be from the world’s most fearsome navy.

These sailors, numbering probably about 500 (though some accounts say 800), were under the command of Gen. Benedict Arnold. This was October 1776, years before his betrayal of the American cause, when he was still one of the would-be country’s most audacious and skilled military leaders.

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During that summer of ’76, as the Declaration of Independence was being hammered out hundreds of miles to the south in Philadelphia, Arnold and these men were assigned to deprive the British control of Lake Champlain. The waterway was vital to the British war plan, and thus key to America’s defenses. The British intended to sail large numbers of troops down the lake. They would seize the twin forts at Ticonderoga on the New York shore and Mount Independence, directly across from it on the Vermont side. They would then rendezvous with British forces near Albany, thus isolating New England from the rest of the former colonies.

Arnold’s orders were to amass a small group of gunboats and pit them against the world’s preeminent naval power. The very idea reeks of hubris, something the supremely confident Arnold had in no short supply. Still, he had doubts about his men: “We have a wretched motley crew in the fleet, the marines (are) the refuse of every regiment, and the seamen, few of them ever wet with salt water,” he wrote his commanding officer.

Much of the American Navy, which consisted of little more than a dozen, hastily constructed gunboats, was stationed with Arnold off Isle LaMotte, at the north end of the lake. They were there to harry British forces venturing south.

Benedict Arnold was one of America’s most competent military leaders at the start of the Revolution. Wikimedia Commons

Arnold’s spies and scouts reported that the British were hauling large ships down the Richelieu River. When they reached Lake Champlain, he knew, the odds were long against the American fleet surviving. The British flotilla was made up of three dozen vessels, including four large ships. Among them were the flagship Inflexible, with three tiers of sails, and an even larger ketch, the Thunderer, which, in addition to six 12-pound guns and a siege howitzer, carried six 24-pounders. Arnold didn’t have a single gun that large. The British also had two dozen gunboats and scores of canoes, carrying perhaps 1,000 Native Americans warriors.

Against this seasoned armada, whose guns could throw twice as many pounds of metal with each broadside as his fleet, Arnold realized he had to use his only advantage, his superior knowledge of the lake. He ordered his ships to sail into Valcour Bay, between Valcour Island and the New York shore, just south of current-day Plattsburgh.

The location had tactical advantages for the Americans. The forested island would conceal the American gunboats, which meant that the British would likely be past the bay’s mouth before spotting them. That would mean the British would have to tack north into the wind to engage in battle. The tricky maneuver, upwind and into a narrow bay, meant the British ships couldn’t attack en masse, Arnold reasoned.

Arnold anchored his fleet of 15 vessels – including a pair of two-masted schooners, eight gondolas, three galleys, a sloop and a cutter – in a crescent formation to allow them to catch the British in a crossfire. The vessels were anchored in such a way that their crews could quickly move them from a broadside firing position to one in which their bows presented themselves to the enemy, making a smaller target.

The British sailed south on Oct. 11. Sir Guy Carleton, royal governor of Quebec, had taken command despite his inexperience. He expected to find the Americans in Cumberland Bay, closer to Plattsburgh, or else fleeing to Ticonderoga. (A year later, three of his top officers would take the extraordinary step of writing to the London Gazette, claiming that Carleton had intelligence that the Americans were in Valcour Bay. If he heard such reports, he dismissed them.) He sailed his forces toward Cumberland Bay and was surprised not to find the Americans.

Continuing south in search of Arnold’s fleet, the British were in a tattered formation, strung out for miles. At about 9 o’clock that morning, after passing the mouth of Valcour Bay, they spotted five American vessels – a schooner and sloop and three row galleys – on the open lake and pursued them. Arnold may have sent the vessels out as bait. The British struggled to sail against the north wind, as Arnold had anticipated. The galleys and the sloop had no trouble making it back to their spots in the crescent. The schooner, the Royal Savage, however, ran aground near Valcour Island and had to be abandoned under heavy fire.

The narrow channel meant the British had to rely heavily on their gunboats, which were nimbler craft. The larger ships had to remain at a distance, limiting their effectiveness. The Thunderer, for all its firepower, proved difficult to sail, and played no part in the action.

For seven hours, the battle raged on. The Americans had no chance at victory. As dusk fell, Carleton pulled back his ships to rest and finish the job the next morning. Arnold gathered his captains to assess damages. They had lost the Royal Savage. A second boat, the Philadelphia, was leaking badly and would soon sink. Several other vessels were badly damaged, but still seaworthy. In all, the Americans had lost about 60 men. Many others were wounded. Worst, they had fired three-quarters of their gunpowder. Continuing the fight was not a reasonable option.

That night, Carleton had left his nearest vessel a mile from the shore. Arnold saw an opportunity. He could have retreated north, between Valcour Island and the mainland, but chose a more daring course. He and his men would slip past the anchored British fleet and race south to the safety of the American forts.

An 18th century diagram of the Battle of Valcour Island. Wikimedia Commons

Arnold ordered the surviving vessels to sail and row with muffled oars. To keep in formation, the men rigged small lanterns to shine on a patch of white chalked on each vessel’s stern. The light would only be visible from about 50 feet. A fog had settled, further obscuring the flotilla. With the British distracted by the noise of their carpenters making repairs and the light from the still-burning Royal Savage, the Americans made their way south along the shore.

At daybreak, the British were stunned to find Valcour Bay deserted. They eventually spotted the fleeing Americans and gave chase. As the British gained on them, Arnold considered making another stand along the west shore, but ultimately decided their best chance was flight. He ordered his fleet to make for the American-held fort at Crown Point, on the New York shore north of Ticonderoga. One of his ships, the Washington, was leaking badly. Overtaken by the Inflexible, the Washington surrendered. The British took 106 prisoners.

Four American vessels managed to slip away and eventually made it all the way to Fort Ticonderoga. Arnold wasn’t so lucky. Several British ships chased his ship, the Congress, and four American gunboats. “They kept up an incessant fire on us for about five hours,” he later reported. Out of ammunition and with nearly half his crew dead or wounded, Arnold realized he couldn’t reach Crown Point, still 10 miles to the south. Rather than surrender, he ordered the vessels into Ferris Bay (now named Arnold’s Bay) on the east shore. He knew it was too shallow for the larger British ships to follow.

On Arnold’s orders, the Americans grounded their vessels and set them ablaze as British boarding parties rowed closer and long-range cannon shots rained down. Men quickly pulled the wounded from the vessels. In his haste, an American gunner ignored the pleas of a Lt. Goldsmith, who had been injured through the thigh. When the boat’s powder magazine exploded, Goldsmith’s body was blasted into the air. Arnold was furious and “threatened to run the gunner through on the spot,” a witness recalled.

Arnold and his men retreated overland, staying near the shore, then were met by boats and ferried to the New York side. They reached Crown Point barely ahead of the British. Arnold ordered the fort burned. They marched on to Ticonderoga, reaching it on Oct. 15.

Five days later, Carleton visited his troops encamped at Crown Point. Snow covered their tents and the distant Adirondacks. His men had crushed Arnold’s navy, but he was in no mood to tackle the next, more formidable, obstacles. Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence were braced for an attack, with 13,000 soldiers defending them. Judging that his men lacked time to build proper winter quarters, Carleton pulled his troops north to the comforts of their Canadian bases.

The British would have to wait until the following year to continue their movement south. When they returned, they would face a much better prepared Continental Army and an enflamed and well-armed citizenry, which would ultimately defeat them at Saratoga.

A depiction of the Battle of Valcour Island by an unknown artist. Wikimedia Commons

Correction: The photo captions of the two paintings of the battle were switched in an earlier version of this article.


Watch the video: Valcour Island (January 2022).